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Board stands by Purnell

Prospect Charter School Principal Brian Purnell’s contract was approved through June 2022 during a School Board meeting Monday night in which teachers and community members showed their support.

“Mr. Purnell is professional in every aspect of his job at Prospect Charter School,” said Renee Breiholz, an office clerk, assistant coach of the high school girls basketball team and wife of School Board member Ben Breiholz. She read from a statement she said she and other parents wrote.

“He is compassionate and steadfast in creating an environment that is ideal for student learning.”

Purnell’s leadership has drawn complaints from students and staff members in the past year, including a union letter in May 2018 that outlined 24 concerns ranging from favoritism in Purnell’s student discipline to targeting and retaliation against teachers “to the point of (them) feeling harassed.”

Multiple Prospect students told the Mail Tribune that they didn’t feel Purnell had effectively handled two separate student sexting incidents, one in which a baseball player sent and solicited nude photos from underage girls and another in which players on a baseball team bus asked for nude photos from a 15-year-old girl.

In a response to a Feb. 17 story in the Mail Tribune about the complaints, the School Board sent out a statement that students who sent the offending text messages were disciplined in coordination with parents and had “learned from the incident.”

“Superintendent (Doug) Jantzi and I fully support Mr. Purnell and his handling of these incidents,” wrote board chairman Ray Williams. “No District complaints were filed by any student or parent against Mr. Purnell or any other staff regarding these student issues.”

The board on Monday briefly considered publishing a further response, but member Ben Breiholz said it should be stronger in its support of Purnell.

“I don’t know how you go about doing that, but we’re going to stand behind our principal,” he said. “I mean, it’s simple.”

A half dozen teachers, staff and a parent who were among the more than a dozen who attended said they had good experiences working with Purnell.

“I know where his heart’s at,” said Andrew Nelmes, the school’s technology director. “You’re not going to get anyone better, so stay the course.”

Parent Vanessa Vicino described her experience at the school as “exceptional.”

Jantzi, after interviewing complainants and witnesses about the union complaint, told the union its allegations were unfounded or uncorroborated and staff had not tried to work out their issues with Purnell directly. The School Board also declined to act on the complaint, saying the union had not followed the district’s complaint policy and needed to continue working with Purnell first.

Purnell and Jantzi told the Mail Tribune student privacy concerns kept them from responding to questions the newspaper sent throughout January and February on both the complaint and the students’ allegations. The School Board sent a brief statement saying it had not received any public complaint about the issues raised by the newspaper and that staff and student confidentiality are mandated by district policy.

After the story ran, however, the board published a longer statement that addressed the two sexting incidents. “Our Board has addressed these District and community concerns appropriately under state law and District policy, and we are committed to the best interests of the Prospect Charter School community, and providing a safe educational environment for students and staff,” the statement said.

Some staff who spoke at the Monday meeting referred to those who have complained about Purnell or spoke with the Mail Tribune as “negative people.”

Other people suggested ways for the school to move forward and improve.

“Every time one of these situations happens, which I’ve been through many, it just brings our staff closer together. ... We just need to remember that our focus is here with our kids,” said Tracy VanWormer, the school’s fourth-grade teacher. “I’ve said this for the 20 years that I’ve been here, that our school has the potential to be the best school in the state. We just gotta make it happen.”

Another speaker, who identified herself as a staff member and parent, said that she thought the district should hire a second administrator to assist with discipline, which she said Purnell is forced to spend too much time on as the only administrator present on some school days.

The School Board discussed options to add a second administrator in the future and create a position that board member Joshua Wetzel described as a “superintendent principal.” Jantzi is considered a half-time employee and is at the school for two and a half days per week.

Jantzi’s contract was also up for renewal Monday, but he withdrew the proposal after the board decided to further discuss its options to restructure the district’s administrative positions.

Purnell’s latest contract recommendation, created by Jantzi, raised Purnell’s salary to $84,890 for the upcoming school year, taking into account both a cost-of-living and step-salary increase. The board also shortened Purnell’s probationary period by a year, meaning he will be a contract administrator in July.

Wetzel, Breiholz and Cynthia Gibson voted in favor of Purnell’s contract renewal and extension. Ray Williams, board chair, opposed, but did not respond Tuesday to a question of why.

Dale Bliss resigned from his position both on the Prospect School Board and as the middle school football coach just hours before the meeting, with a handwritten note that did not give a reason for his departure. An attempt to reach him by phone Tuesday was unsuccessful.

Purnell declined to comment on his contract renewal.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.

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